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homosexuality

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Gay Rights and the Global Culture

Is there really such a thing as a global culture? Consider gay rights.

Last Thursday the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. Last April a court in Trinidad and Tobago found colonial-era laws banning gay sex to be unconstitutional. And late last year, Australia became the umpteenth state to legalise same-sex marriage. There is a slow-motion avalanche going on.

Yes, 35 of the 63 Commonwealth countries, mostly in Africa or the West Indies, still make homosexual acts a criminal offence. Yes, some countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, have even tightened their anti-gay laws. And in the ultra-conservative Malaysian state of Terengganu last week, two women were lashed six times with a cane and fined $800 for ‘trying to have sex’ (whatever that means) in a car.

Change was never achieved easily, and it still isn’t. Section 377, the 19th-century law that made a same-sex relationship in India an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term, was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009. The Indian gay community, as big as anywhere else but more oppressed than most, celebrated, and many people came out of the closet, especially in the big cities.

Some of them paid a high price when the Indian Supreme Court then reinstated Section 377 in 2013, saying that only parliament could change the law. This year the very same court reviewed that decision and reversed it. Why did it do that? After all, the Indian Constitution hadn’t changed in the meantime.

Nobody on the Indian Supreme Court will admit this in public, but the real reason for the about-face was that the consensus global definition of human rights has expanded far enough to make its previous ruling untenable. No grown-up country that is fully engaged with the rest of the world wants to be embarrassed by laws that make it look medieval.

Conservative religious and political leaders in developing countries often condemn the repeal of anti-gay laws as an unwelcome import from the West, somehow contrary to the local culture, but they should (and often do) know better. It was Western countries that imposed anti-gay laws on their empires in the first place, in the 19th century, and it’s local activists, not foreign gays, that are struggling to get rid of them.

This is not to say that the situation of gays outside the West was good before the rise of the European empires. On the contrary, very few cultures, Western or otherwise, have ever accorded gays the same rights and respect as the rest of the population. The activists are breaking new ground in the West as much as they are in the developing world.

What we are really seeing here is the halting but probably unstoppable emergence of a global standard on human rights. It has been underway for at least 250 years and it may have another century to go, but gay rights belongs to the same category of social innovation as the end of slavery, the rise of feminism, and the abolition of the death penalty.

None of these changes are happening because they correspond to some natural law. They are being consciously created by people who want there to be more justice and more equity in the world. The activists are a small minority, but they are making progress because their ideas resonate with a much larger group in every society who share their ideals if not their energy.

This may sound overly optimistic at a time when there is a racist president in the White House, a cynical manipulator in the Kremlin, and a saner version of Chairman Mao running China. All of them trade in gutter nationalism, and none of them gives a damn about justice or equity. Not only that, but they are all quite popular at home.

Never mind. Progress is usually two steps forward, one step back, and we may be in for a slow decade in terms of progress on human rights, or even some back-sliding. But do you really think that people as shallow as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin can turn the clock all the way back? (Xi Jinping may be a longer-term problem, but not for gays. There are no anti-gay laws in China.)

This is long-wave change. The rise of democracy was part of it. Decolonisation was part of it. The struggle against racism is part of it. The goal is equality of rights, and this decade is turning out to be the decade when the gays get it.

Or rather, it’s the decade when they get in legal terms, although they will have to wait a while longer before sexual orientation becomes a completely neutral attribute like hair colour. Basically, they have to wait until the older generation dies off. Most of the urban young get it already.

Meanwhile, you might like to note that with the change in India, five-sixths of the world’s people now live in countries where homosexuality is not a crime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“This…China”)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Gays and the Law

23 December 2013

Gays and the Law

By Gwynne Dyer

After a decade when the struggle for equal rights for gay people made great progress, it looks like the counter-revolution is underway. In the past six months, there have been major defeats for gay rights in Africa, in Asia, and even in Europe.

In June, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” that effectively makes it illegal to speak publicly in defence of gay rights, let alone hold gay pride events.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned the following month that same-sex marriage (barely discussed in Russia) is “a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse.” In a 2013 poll, 16 percent of Russians said that gay people should be isolated from society, 22 percent said they should be forced to undergo treatment, and 5 percent said they should just be “liquidated”.

In Australia, on 11 December, only a week after a law making same-sex marriage legal in the Australian Capital Territory came into effect, the federal High Court overturned it and 27 gay marriages were automatically dissolved. “Whether same sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the federal parliament,” said the judges, and should not be decided by the courts.

On the same day, in India, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court that had struck down the infamous Section 377, which said that a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term. The ruling only applied to the National Capital Territory, but it was widely assumed that other Indian courts would follow suit. However, the Indian Supreme Court has now jumped the other way.

The judgement actually said only that the law has to be changed by parliament, not by the courts. But meanwhile all the gays who were encouraged by the Delhi High Court ruling to come out of the closet are going to find it harder than ever to live like normal citizens.

Finally, on 19 December, Uganda’s parliament passed a law imposing life imprisonment for some homosexual “offences”. The private member’s bill also makes it a crime punishable by a three-year prison sentence not to report gay people to the police.

“I am glad the parliament has voted against evil,” said David Bahati, the MP who sponsored the bill. “Because we are a God-fearing nation, we value life in a holistic way. It is because of those values that members of parliament passed this bill regardless of what the outside world thinks.”

When you set it out like this, it looks as if a global counter-offensive against gay rights is underway, but it’s not as bad as it looks.

Uganda’s prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, opposes the new law and claims that there was not a quorum in parliament to pass it. It may be cancelled on that argument, or President Yoweri Museveni, who is conscious of the international damage to Uganda’s reputation, may simply veto it. This is not yet a done deal.

Africa is the most anti-gay continent – 37 out of 52 African countries have laws that criminalise homosexual acts – but many of these laws are a legacy of the European colonial occupations and are not vigorously enforced. Some of the biggest African countries, including South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt, have no anti-gay laws. The glass is considerably less than half-full in Africa, but it is not empty.

In Asia, anti-homosexual laws are rare except in Muslim-majority countries. India was the great exception to that rule. Section 377 was an embarrassment to the Congress government, which was quietly grateful to the Delhi High Court for striking it down.

The government has already filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision on the grounds that it “violated the principle of equality.” On the other hand, if a new law is actually required to kill Section 377, it is unlikely to risk outraging conservative opinion by passing such a law before next year’s election.

In Russia, the battle for gay rights is already almost a century old. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1917 after the revolution, recriminalised under Stalin in 1933, decriminalised again in 1993 – and homosexual relationships are still legal, although President Vladimir Putin is playing populist politics with his “anti-gay propaganda” law.

As for Australia, the issue is about the “last gay right”: same-sex marriage. The new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has already said he opposes it, so there will be no new legislation there soon. But most Australian states already permit civil unions or other legal devices that effectively give same-sex partners the same legal rights as other couples.

So do most other jurisdictions in the developed world, and in the past decade sixteen countries, including almost all of Western Europe, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and sixteen US states, have gone further and legalised same-sex marriage. (So has New Zealand, just as Australia was re-banning it.)

The tipping point was passed some time ago, and the clock will not be turned back. Homosexuality is still illegal in 83 countries, but even including India they account for only one-third of the world’s people. Without India, they would have a mere sixth of the planet’s population. The global glass is more than half-full.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 8. (“Patriarch…liquidated”; “The judgement…citizens”; and “I am…thinks”)